On Submarines and Sorrow

A Brief Explainer of France's Ongoing Temper Tantrum

As most have no doubt learned by now, France has recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation after learning of the formation of the AUKUS alliance. This Trump-like hissy fit is very, well, French, but it is also very hard to justify. Paris is rightfully upset at having been blindsided by the announcement of AUKUS, but the reality is that France could never have been included in AUKUS, and I suspect Paris realizes this deep down. Obviously much is still unknown about the details of the current imbroglio, but even just the information we currently have suggests that this is much ado about nothing. Still, there are many moving parts, so I wanted to write up a brief explanation for those confused by the recent turn of events.

To fully understand how we arrived at this situation, one has to look back to 2015, when the Turnbull government announced a competitive bidding process to replace Australia’s aging Collins-class submarines. The competition was limited to diesel-electric boats, as nuclear submarines were viewed in Canberra as too politically contentious, too provocative toward Beijing, and likely to peeve the Kiwis, who do not permit nuclear-powered ships into their waters. The competition centered around three designs: a German bid from ThyssenKrupp, a French bid from DCNS (now Naval Group), and a Japanese design from Mitsubishi and Kawasaki. Japan was actually seen as the favorite, because its Soryu-class submarine is generally considered to be far and away the best diesel-electric attack sub in the world. Japan was also the country America wanted to see win the contract, as it would be advantageous to have Australia operating a Japanese boat, given that this would enhance interoperability between two key American allies in the Pacific. Ultimately, however, the French won the bid with their modified Barracuda-class design, in large part because they promised that most of the construction and contracting work would be carried out by Australian firms.

But the French overpromised and consistently underdelivered. The design from which the French proposal was based employed a nuclear powerplant, but DCNS planned to convert the sub to a conventional diesel-electric powerplant in line with Australian preferences. Moreover, the submarine’s entire weapons management system had to be redesigned to American specifications. Thus, the ship was effectively a new design, even though it appeared to be a mature platform. The French also ran into problems because they were attempting to build these submarines in Australia, a country lacking a domestic submarine industry. The result was predictable: cost overruns of almost 100%, procurement delays, and growing concerns that, by the time the subs were actually produced, they’d be completely obsolete. To be fair to the French, much of these problems were the result of insane Australian demands that had no basis in reality. But DCNS signed the contract, so it was their job to live up to their commitments to the customer. They didn’t. Instead of falling for the sunk cost fallacy, Canberra began searching for a better design.

By this point, the strategic situation had evolved. China had become increasingly belligerent both in general and towards Australia specifically, which made it easier for Canberra to pursue more capable ships. After all, if relations with China were already horrible, there was less to lose from taking actions disfavored by Beijing. Canberra thus began to consider nuclear subs, as their increased range and endurance make them superior for extended patrols in the enormous Pacific. At this point, one might be wondering why Australia didn’t simply reopen the bidding process or request that France build the submarines to their new nuclear specifications. This is a great question, and unfortunately we still lack a definitive answer.

However, it is fairly easy to surmise why the Aussies ultimately ditched the French. First, French credibility was completely shot through from all the bungling they had already done. This view might not have been totally fair, but it was a political reality in Australia. Second, there has been some speculation that France did not want to share nuclear naval reactor technology, both because of IP concerns and because of the potential damage it could do to the nonproliferation regime. Third, and the real reason in my view, is that French attack boats utilize low enriched uranium (LEU) in their reactors, while American and British (which use American technology) boats fuel their reactors with highly enriched uranium (HEU). LEU is unappealing because it means French reactors are less energy dense and must be refueled every ten or eleven years. Canberra wants everything done domestically (part of how this whole mess started) and neither possesses nor wants to possess the infrastructure needed for nuclear refueling. Thus, the alternative is to send the boats to France every decade, which largely defeats the purpose of locating all the construction and maintenance facilities in Australia. Beyond that, HEU reactors are simply more efficient because they last longer.

The upshot is that a nuclearized version of the Barracuda was not tenable, and so Canberra decide to exclude France from the new program and go with the US/UK option. Was this necessary? Yes and no. The reality is that Australia would not be able to access American reactor technology if France was included, as DC does not trust Paris with privileged defense IP. The US has only ever shared nuclear technology with one other country in its history, Britain, and this was after significant haggling and many concessions from London. Only America’s closest allies get this level of access, and France has historically not acquitted itself well in that regard. By contrast, Australia has fought in literally every post-1945 war the US has been involved in, is a trusted member of the Five Eyes intelligence pact, and has explicitly designed its military to seamlessly integrate with the US. France is also a notorious thief of American defense technology, being surpassed only by China. If Australia wanted access to American reactors, then, France could not be invited into AUKUS. Paris simply isn’t trustworthy enough. Still, it’s very clear that Australia should have been more transparent about its plans, and France is rightfully angry about being completely frozen out.

What makes France’s more puerile moves so absurd is that Paris knows exactly why it lost the contract and was frozen out of AUKUS. It offered a bad product and had no place in a nuclear tech-sharing agreement involving the US. And given this, one wonders if Australia was simply trying to save France the embarrassment of requesting to participate and getting rejected. Moreover, beyond France’s genuine frustration at the secrecy, AUKUS doesn’t actually change anything about France’s position. Paris still must work with Canberra and Washington if it wants to maintain a regional presence, and the US, UK, and Australia were already allies. So histrionic claims that this entirely upends France’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy seem bogus and, frankly, damaging to France’s regional position. And if these claims are genuine, then France’s strategy was resting on a pretty shaky foundation.

In the next few days I’m going to write a post describing the broader impediments facing the EU as it seeks to expand its security role in the Asia-Pacific, but in many ways France is just the tip of the iceberg.

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